Not Just for Kids: Author Tahereh Mafi discusses 'Shatter Me'
In Tahereh Mafi's young-adult debut, "Shatter Me," a young woman is jailed for something she has no ability to control. Whomever she touches, she kills. Whether that's a gift or a curse she discovers over time -- and with the help of an attractive cellmate. We caught up with the Orange County author to talk about the kickoff to her much-talked-about trilogy.
Jacket Copy: One of the more intriguing aspects about your book is your decision to strike out sections of text and let the reader see the words the main character is contemplating but ultimately rejects. Why did you use this technique?
Tahereh Mafi: I never made a conscious decision to use strikethroughs in the novel; they just became an organic way to express the chaos and turmoil in Juliette's mind. When we first meet her, she's been in isolation for 264 days; she hasn't spoken a single word in just as long. She's struggling with reality, too petrified to speak, not even trusting the things she writes down in her journal. But as her character develops -- and the story progresses -- the strikethroughs lessen as well.
JC: Some readers consider "Shatter Me" a dystopian fantasy because it takes place in an environmentally degraded landscape with an oppressive government, while others view it as a paranormal romance due to Juliette's "gift" and romantic liaisons. Do you think one is more accurate than the other?
TM: It’s more of a dystopian novel with paranormal elements even though the romance is a central theme in the story. Juliette has this lethal touch, so it’s considered paranormal in our world, but in her world it isn't.
JC: Where did this girl-with-the-lethal-touch idea come from?
TM: It didn’t develop as an idea separate from the story. I didn’t understand what was happening with Juliette until I was writing the book. I heard her voice in my head one day and saw her locked up for something she didn’t do, and I had to capture her voice on paper and the rest of it developed from there.
TM: This is a book about a girl with a lethal touch. A girl trapped in a dystopian society where the government wants to use her as a weapon in their war. But at its core it’s about a teenager trying to figure out who she is in a society that’s trying to tell her who to be. She’s been cast off from society for being this freak and for committing a terrible crime, and she’s struggling with who she is and trying to understand herself. Is she actually a monster? Is she a terrible, horrible person born with this ability she doesn’t know how to get away from? Or can she get past it and find a way to live with it and find a better way to live her life? It’s not that it’s appealing. It’s about the inner turmoil in her life and who she’s going to be. If she’s going to be a monster or if she’s going to allow herself to be a weapon or to be a warrior. The choice is ultimately up to her.
JC: If it isn't appealing to you personally, why is it an appealing, and enduring, concept in young-adult literature generally?
TM: It speaks to the young-adult struggle. I think it’s something that never goes away. It’s something we experience our entire lives, but especially as adolescents, we feel in many ways ostracized. We feel different from our peers. We feel like no one understands us. Like maybe we can’t see past the confines of high school or our parents' rules for living under their roofs. We feel alone. One of the reasons why it’s appealing is we all want to feel there’s hope, that our being different is something that will one day be appreciated, that the weirdness we always suspected was within us might be destined for greatness. I think that’s appealing not just for teenagers but to human beings in general. Sometimes we're not the right color or shape or size. In Juliette's case, she’s not the right type of human being.
JC: Are there any similarities between Juliette and yourself?
TM: She kills people when she touches them. So that’s a huge difference between the two of us. When I wrote the book, I didn’t think that any of the things I was writing had anything to do with me, and it wasn’t until I finished the book and looked back on it that I realized that some of it was certainly inspired by things I felt myself many times, but again I think that’s why it relates to a lot of young readers because we all go through that on some level.
JC: You live in Orange County now. Have you always?
TM: I was born and raised in Connecticut and I moved out to Northern California when I was 12 and then I moved to Orange County when I was 14. So I’ve been here ever since. I think I was definitely the nerdy, awkward kid. I thought I was OK. I didn’t hate myself, but I definitely stood out from the crowd. I never had the right clothes. I never had the right anything. It’s pretty standard. I think I had senioritis in high school the moment I walked in my freshman year. I was always ready to move past the restrictions of high school.
JC: The second book in the trilogy won't be out until next fall. Can you give us any hints about how the story will progress?
TM: All I can say without giving too much away is that it’s a bit longer than the first book and you’ll learn a lot more about the world and the characters. You’ll get all of your questions answered, and the book will also ask a lot of new questions.
JC: Is there a title:
TM: Yes, but I can’t share it with you just yet.
-- Susan Carpenter
Photos, from top: "Shatter Me" cover; author Tahereh Mafi. Credit: HarperCollins Children's Books